In the same essay Orwell has an answer for my complaint. "The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude." Fair enough, but also exhausting. We have many, many writers today eager to stress that point. I mean, God forbid you write about the moon or a flower.
Despite my resistance to these claims, Orwell is probably right. The political purpose that is nearly always present in his books and essays gives his work moral force, but it does not make his views correct, nor is it the aspect that makes his writing stand out from the other sincere and humane political tracts of his time. Before all else, Orwell is a fantastic stylist. He has a casual, almost conversational tone that belies a confidence and an authority that nearly no writer can match. He is concise, direct, but never dull. To take one example of his many talents, he is one of the finest lead writers in English. Here are a handful of classic opening lines:
The Lion and the Unicorn, written during the Blitz: "As I write, highly civilized human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me."
Benefit of Clergy, Some Notes on Salvador Dali: "Autobiography is only to be trusted when it reveals something disgraceful. A man who gives a good account of himself is probably lying, since any life when viewed from the inside is simply a series of defeats."
Reflections on Ghandi: "Saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent..."
1984: "It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen."
Despite my antipathy to politics in literature and to some of Orwell's own views, he is one of my favorite authors. I keep a copy of his essays next to my bed-- a 1,363 page Everyman edition, and I leaf through it frequently. I have read essays like Charles Dickens and James Burnham and the Managerial Revolution many times. (No small brag, Burnham is 8,800 words long and Dickens over 20,500.) Both have a political purpose, especially the Burnham essay, and both are utterly devoid of humbug.
But the politics in each essay is questionable--at least to me, someone who is no socialist--and I was never clear what Orwell meant by socialism. Rarely does he discuss it with any specifics or describe how his ideal government or economic system might operate. Occasionally he offers a vague definition, like this one in his Burnham essay: "Socialism, until recently, was supposed to connote political democracy, social equality and internationalism." By that definition I am a socialist. Nearly any popular modern political ideology might claim all three of those (though a lot of conservatives in our populist era might panic at the idea of "internationalism"). However vague or broad he may have been with definitions, policies and programs, he was clearly a man of the left. His great books Road to Wigan Pier and Homage to Catalonia prove that-- but if you have not read those, then just know he fought for the Republican cause in Spain and caught a bullet in the neck for his efforts. He was a man with skin in the game, and that too adds to the moral power of his writing.
In James Burnham and the Managerial Revolution, written in 1946 (I use the Everyman title here, by the way, not the title in the link above), Orwell decries the American political scientist James Burnham for a series of books and essays written during World War II in which he ostensibly explicates a new "managerial class" that dominates the world, but in practice (according to Orwell) composes a paean to whoever happened to be winning the war at that moment. The most remarkable thing about the essay is how he steel-mans Burnham's argument, presenting not only the most cogent and interesting points but also exceptionally well-written passages (such as Burnham's vision of a feast at Stalin's palace under the watchful eyes of his secret police while Moscow burns and its citizens starve outside). This fair, comprehensive presentation of Burnham's ideas only makes the eventual demolition more complete.
Here is how Orwell summarizes Burnham's shifting arguments as the war progressed:
"Sorting these various statements out, we have the following prophecies:
- Germany is bound to win the war.
- Germany and Japan are bound to survive as great states, and to remain the nuclei of power in their respective area.
- Germany will not attack the U.S.S.R. until after the defeat of Britain.
- The U.S.S.R. is bound to be defeated.
It will be seen that at each point Burnham is predicting a continuation of the thing that is happening. Now the tendency to do this is not simply a bad habit, like inaccuracy or exaggeration, which one can correct by taking thought. It is a major mental disease, and its roots lie partly in cowardice and partly in the worship or power, which is not fully separable from cowardice."
It is hard to imagine he had a career left after this take-down. Somehow, though, Burnham recovered. He eventually got a Medal of Freedom from Ronald Reagan.
There is an irony in his brilliant critique, though. As a dissection of another writer and his work, the essay is a damning summary of some extremely poor predictions and odious mental "diseases." But Orwell himself, in this same essay, offers a pretty bad prediction of his own: "The real question is not whether the people who wipe their boots on you during the next fifty years are to be called managers, bureaucrats, or politicians; the question is whether capitalism, now obviously doomed, is to give way to oligarchy or to true democracy."
We can argue over what exactly happened over the next 50 years. Did we suffer under oligarchy or experience true democracy? Are our leaders managers or politicians? Did anyone "wipe their boots" on us? etc. All open questions still, but the bit about capitalism being obviously doomed-- he got that as wrong as any of Burnham's predictions. That supposed obviousness is a recurring theme in Orwell's essays and a basis of 1984.
Well... so people say. I'm a bit wary of describing 1984 as a predictive novel-- it was very presentist too. Not only was the Soviet Union in 1948, when Orwell wrote the book, as horrifying as anything in 1984, but parts of the novel echo his depictions of working class life in 1937's "The Road to Wigan Pier," which is a work of non-fiction. Over the years I have thought about making a quiz-- "Is this passage from 1984 or Wigan Pier?" So whenever people argue that Brave New World got things more right than 1984, I feel they are missing the point of both novels-- they are comments on their own days by novelists, not auguries by soothsayers. Still, I think it is safe to say Orwell both feared and expected a megastate to arrive and do something along the lines of Big Brother.
At any rate, the reason I return periodically to James Burnham and the Managerial Revolution is to witness a brilliant mind summarize, dissect, and in the end dismantle another intelligent man's worldview in a manner so thorough and complete and fair that it is a plain old joy to read.
Charles Dickens is another joy. It's not just a critique of his work but a celebration. Orwell has obviously read Dickens repeatedly and loved all of it. He makes me want to pick up the Dickens novels I have skipped (admittedly, most of them). As a political critique, though, I am not on board. He criticizes Dickens for, basically, not going all the way with into Orwell's own socialist camp:
"There is not a line in the book [Hard Times, but he means in Dickens work generally] that can properly be called Socialistic; indeed, its tendency if anything is pro-capitalist, because its whole moral is that capitalists ought to be kind, not that workers ought to be rebellious. Bounderby is a bullying windbag and Gradgrind has been morally blinded, but if they were better men, the system would work well enough-- that, all through, is the implication. And so far as social criticism goes, one can never extract much more from Dickens than this, unless one deliberately reads meanings into him. His whole ‘message’ is one that at first glance looks like an enormous platitude: If men would behave decently the world would be decent.
"Naturally this calls for a few characters who are in positions of authority and who do behave decently. Hence that recurrent Dickens figure, the good rich man. This character belongs especially to Dickens’s early optimistic period. He is usually a ‘merchant’ (we are not necessarily told what merchandise he deals in), and he is always a superhumanly kind-hearted old gentleman who ‘trots’ to and fro, raising his employees’ wages, patting children on the head, getting debtors out of jail and in general, acting the fairy godmother. Of course he is a pure dream figure, much further from real life than, say, Squeers or Micawber. Even Dickens must have reflected occasionally that anyone who was so anxious to give his money away would never have acquired it in the first place."
I read that again and again because it is masterfully put, not because I agree with it. "If men would behave decently the world would be decent" seems simple, sure, but it's also indisputable, and "anyone who was so anxious to give his money away would never have acquired it in the first place" is simple, but also a dangerous assumption. Can Orwell imagine a man who simply plied a trade and found a fortune? Is doing so necessarily immoral? Is "acting the capitalist fairy godmother" something done out of anxiety or eagerness to do the right thing? Contradictions abound in humanity, so is a good rich man really a "dream figure"? A lot of blood was spilled last century based on the assumption a rich man must be a bad one.
Orwell's analysis of Dickens's economic views may be wrong, but it is good writing because it risks being wrong. He shares his sincere response as a reader, keeps his political purpose ever in mind, and thus he has written a very long piece of criticism that is not only as worth reading as its subject, but worth re-reading.
But above all that, it's the style that brings me back, one so relaxed it is hard to call style, one that never tries too hard, that looks level at the reader and makes you feel like a peer, always in a tone that says he wants you to see what he sees because, well, he likes you and assumes you too are smart. It's friendly, like reading a long letter from someone who knows you well. More than any other writer I know of, Orwell has a tone of familiarity and warmth in nearly every essay. You feel you are sitting by a bar with a great raconteur, or a good, intelligent friend who wants to tell it to you straight because you deserve it.
That's not to say he is flawless. He knew it and admitted as much in the essay that is forced down students' throats in any good high school or college composition class, "Politics and the English Language." "Look back through this essay," he warns, "and for certain you will find that I have again and again committed the very faults I am protesting against." My favorite quirk of Orwell's is "at any rate," which I used above in homage. In "Politics..." (5,400 words), it occurs once, in "Why I Write" (2.700 words) once, in Charles Dickens five times, and in Burnham nine times. At this link, a Gutenberg.net collection of 50 essays all on a single webpage, the phrase occurs 112 times. But if you can write like this, you get away with it:
"When one reads any strongly individual piece of writing, one has the impression of seeing a face somewhere behind the page. It is not necessarily the actual face of the writer. I feel this very strongly with Swift, with Defoe, with Fielding, Stendhal, Thackeray, Flaubert, though in several cases I do not know what these people looked like and do not want to know. What one sees is the face that the writer ought to have. Well, in the case of Dickens I see a face that is not quite the face of Dickens’s photographs, though it resembles it. It is the face of a man of about forty, with a small beard and a high colour. He is laughing, with a touch of anger in his laughter, but no triumph, no malignity. It is the face of a man who is always fighting against something, but who fights in the open and is not frightened, the face of a man who is generously angry — in other words, of a nineteenth-century liberal, a free intelligence, a type hated with equal hatred by all the smelly little orthodoxies which are now contending for our souls."
I remember when I discovered the collection of Orwell essays linked above, the collection of 50 posted to the Gutenburg site. It was before I owned the Everyman collection of Orwell essays, around when my daughter was a month old. I took the 1 am shift feeding during those early months. Like any good literary man I prefer print and paper, but I also prefer not accidentally spraying a baby with formula or letting her spit up on a book as I fumble about. Reading on the phone in that circumstance was perfect. I can remember first reading the Dickens essay on one of those nights, mixing the joy of fatherhood with the joy of reading. She was cradled in my left arm, bottle in my right hand, the phone balanced on my knee, and I'd scroll through paragraphs with my thumb and just feel lucky. Lucky to be a dad, lucky to have this moment in the midnight silence with my girl, and lucky to have a companion like Orwell.
Orwellean is a word that means something ugly, a rank hypocrisy which he drew to the attention of his fellow leftists and eventually to everyone. Today people on the left and the right use the word to decry each other, sometimes accurately. It means malicious obfuscation, verbal slight-of-hand, and the worst and most manipulative lies in the service of brute power. I often see it in print or hear it spoken and wonder if the person using the term has actually read Orwell, or anything beyond 1984. I wonder if they know how fine and honest a writer he was, how committed he was to his beliefs, and how, to those of us who read him often, that Orwellean evokes not only doublespeak, but mastery of English prose, a commitment to the good of humanity, and a willingness to risk all and fight, literally and bravely fight, against all the smelly little orthodoxies that contend for our souls.